Thursday, January 24, 2008

Religious Video Games

Back in September and October, while I was waiting for my visa to come to Japan, I finally got a chance to play Okami (大神 ōkami in Japanese), an action-adventure game for the Playstation 2 console that was released in late 2006. I was attracted to the game for two main reasons. First, it had a unique graphics engine that made the game feel like a 3D Japanese watercolor painting. Second, and most important for me, it had a soundtrack that fused Japanese traditional music (邦楽) with the Western orchestra.

When I started playing the game, I was in for quite a surprise. The story was nothing less than Shinto 101. You play as the avatar of Amaterasu, the sun goddess and the most important of the kami to the Japanese people. You have been called back to the world by a withering tree named Sakuya in order to deal with a spreading darkness in the world, which through the game takes on the form of Orochi the 8-headed serpent, the Nine-tailed fox demon, and many other characters from Japanese legend. Some of the protagonists include Issun the painter, Susanō, Waka, Kaguya and the Bamboo Cutter, and others. Amaterasu is in a weakened form, as people have forgotten her and are no longer praying to her. Through the game, you help people through their troubles in order to gain their praise, which in turn strengthens you. There are many more blatant Shinto references.

The thing is, the game is incredibly fun. One look at the Wikipedia entry ( will show you the vast amount of awards and acclaim it has received. It's even getting a Nintendo Wii remake, even though Clover Studios, who produced the game, dissolved last year. It has earned its place on my shelf as a game that I will never re-sell, and will probably play again in a few years. So, on the one hand, we have an incredibly well-made game promoting Shinto.

On the other hand, we have the wealth of well-made Christian games on the market. Their titles include... well... to be honest I can't think of any. I remember Wisdom Tree Publishers back in the days of the NES (Japanese Famicom) and SNES (Japanese Super Famicom), who are famous for publishing the only game, and I mean the ONLY game, for the Super Nintendo to NOT receive Nintendo's official seal of quality. The game was Super Noah's Ark 3D, which was identical to the first person shooter Wolfenstein 3D, except for the fact that the Nazis were graphically replaced with goats. In the days of the original Nintendo, they were famous for a game called "Spiritual Warfare," which was loosely based on the Legend of Zelda, but instead of killing goblins with your sword, you instead shot heathens with the fruits of the spirit in order to convert them. Other games include rip-offs of Super Mario 2 and Candyland.

In fact, every Christian game I can think of is a rip-off of another game. But surely things have gotten better in the last 15 years, right? Unfortunately, no. Digital Praise is the leading Christian games publisher now, famous for making a Christian version of Dance Dance Revolution and a host of PC-based Veggie Tales and Adventures in Odyssey games. A couple of years back, Left Behind: Eternal Forces tried to cash in on the hype surrounding the Command and Conquer series. There have been few other notable mentions.

So why is it that a game promoting Shinto can win game of the year on so many websites, while Christian games barely rise to the surface, and if they do, are generally not worth the time and money it takes to play them? Part of it includes the costs incurred while making a game. After all, games are expensive to make, and they are only getting worse. I think a bigger problem though, is the stigma that video games have received from Protestant America. Almost every famous anti-videogame spokesman is a Conservative Christian, and many things have been said to alienate those who like games. Some of my friends have been lectured by their coworkers on how they are breaking the commandment to not kill every time they play Halo with their friends. Some have seen games that include magic and immediately announced them as hethen, ignoring the often strong sense of justice and morality presented in the same games. Others claim that video games rot the mind (a statment which has been proven false on many occasions, as playing games includes much more mental interaction than watching television or movies, and has been proven to increase cognitive mapping in children).

In the meantime, we as Christians are missing out on a medium which is rivaling and threatening to surpass the movie industry in terms of revenue. Not only that, but a quality game made and released (through the appropriate outlets) in America/Canada will also likely be released in post-Christian Europe, Australia, Southeast Asia, and of course, unreached Japan. The operative word is "quality." For more information on what some people think of the Christian gaming industry, an editor at posted an interesting commentary. I would encourage you to read it. Section 3 includes the commentary on Chrsitian games, and section 2 shows some of the ways that video gamers feel attacked my narrow conservative mindsets. Check it out here.

1 comment:

Paul Nethercott said...

Thanks Scot for this post! How about posting your list of favorite anime? Would that fit in here on the blog?